According to Proverbs 16:6, love and good deeds make atonement. So who needs sacrifices?
If I were to follow your logic, I could just as easily say, “According to Proverbs 16:6, love and good deeds make atonement, so who needs Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement)?” That is to say, if atonement can be made between man and God through doing good, then there is no need for suffering and chastisement, no need for prayers and confession, no need even for the Day of Atonement. What Bible-believing Jew would hold to such a view? This points us to the real meaning of this verse, namely, “Through lovingkindness and truth, sin is wiped away.” In other words, on a practical, person-to-person level, being loyal, loving, and truthful will overcome and eradicate the prior effects of sin. But the verse is not directly related to issues of atonement, purification, and forgiveness in the sight of God, nor is it reasonable to think that the Lord would overthrow countless verses in the Torah with one phrase in Proverbs.
While it is true that both the Bible and Rabbinic Judaism emphasize the importance of acts of kindness and charity along with the need for making restitution, nowhere does the Bible teach that love and good deeds eliminate the need for prayer or confession of sins to God, nor do the Scriptures teach that doing good alone guarantees atonement.208
Interestingly, the sages dealt at length with the issue of receiving forgiveness for different levels of transgression. According to a debate recorded in the Mishnah, Talmud, and Mishneh Torah of Mai-monides,209 if someone violates a positive commandment (meaning, “You shall”) and repents, he is immediately forgiven (with reference to Jer. 3:22), but if he violates a negative commandment (meaning, “You shall not”) and repents, his forgiveness is suspended until the Day of Atonement (the rabbis support this with reference to Lev. 16:30).210 If he transgresses a commandment punishable by karet (literally, “cutting off”)211 or liable to capital punishment by the court and then repents, both his repentance as well as the effects of the Day of Atonement are held in abeyance, and he achieves atonement by means of suffering (yissurin; citing Ps. 89:32). In the event, however, that he is guilty of profaning the divine Name, the merits of his repentance, the Day of Atonement, and his chastisements are all suspended (or provide partial atonement), and it is only death that cleanses (mitah memareqet) and secures complete atonement.212
We see from all this that authoritative Jewish tradition teaches that all the acts of repentance in the world—including acts of love and kindness to one’s neighbor—do not guarantee atonement for all sins, nor do these morally commendable acts make void other means of forgiveness instituted by God—in particular the Day of Atonement.
What then does Proverbs 16:6 mean? As explained previously (see above, 3.10), the Hebrew verb kipper (used in this verse) does not always mean “atone, expiate.”213 Sometimes it simply means “wipe away, remove, purge,” and, for the most part, either the context, the grammar, or both tell us how kipper should be translated. In fact, Rashi, commenting on the use of kipper in Genesis 32:21 stated that “every time kapparah occurs with the words ‘guilt’ and ‘sin’ or with the word ‘face,’ it is to be interpreted as an expression of wiping off or removal.”214 In the verse in question here, kipper is used to explain how the wrong effects of sin can be removed or purged—meaning, how the effect of someone’s offenses against another person can be wiped away. It is through love and good deeds. This is brought out in the following translations: “By mercy and truth iniquity is purged: and by the fear of the Lord men depart from evil” (KJV). “Guilt is wiped out by loyalty and faith, and the fear of the Lord makes mortals turn from evil” (RED; cf. also the neb).215
Even putting these translations of kipper aside, we should remember that the verse we are considering is found in the Book of Proverbs, the most practical, down to earth book in the Bible. It is not found in Exodus, Leviticus, or Numbers, books in the Torah that spend considerable time outlining the method and means by which the people of Israel could come into right relationship with God. Rather, this verse comes from a book filled with wise counsel and sage advice for day-to-day living, teaching us how we can live our lives here in the fear of the Lord. It would be unlikely, therefore, to find the doctrine of atonement discussed here, unless it was in the context of “atoning” for sins of man against man. Fritz Maass, a Hebrew and Old Testament scholar, addressed this very point in his article on kpr. He wrote:
“Atonement” is an interpersonal process on three occasions in the OT. Jacob wants to “atone” Esau’s countenance with gifts, i.e., to placate or appease (Gen 32:21); Prov teaches that one can “atone for” (=repay) a debt through goodness and faithfulness (bəhesed weʾəemet; Prov 16:6); and that a wise man can “atone for” (=appease) the king’s wrath (16:14); 16:6 could refer to a relationship with God.216
So while Maass recognizes the possibility that Proverbs 16:6 could refer to atonement of sins between man and God, he prefers to read it in the context of an “interpersonal process,” which certainly suits the context in Proverbs as a whole.217 It also underscores the fact that ritual atonement, centered around the priests ministering in the Tabernacle/Temple and focused in particular on the Day of Atonement, is virtually never separated from blood sacrifices (see above, 3.10).218However, in other contexts that are unrelated to Temple, priesthood, sacrifice, or ritual atonement, kipper can be used in different senses. That is the case here in Proverbs, and it would be an error to attempt to expand or amend the Torah’s teaching on expiation and atonement with this one line in Proverbs, especially given the fact that this particular line is subject to different interpretations.
To reiterate an important truth that we emphasized previously (see above, 3.9), neither the prophets nor the psalmists nor the author(s) of Proverbs would contradict or negate Moses, and whatever Proverbs 16:6 is saying, it is not saying that the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement or the daily sacrificial services were unnecessary or obsolete. As we noted at the outset, you might as well argue that the Day of Atonement itself—even in its traditional Jewish form with the emphasis on prayer, confession, fasting, and repentance without blood sacrifices—is unnecessary, since, according to this objection, love and good deeds are all the atonement we need.
On the contrary, love and good deeds alone have never paid in full for our sins, not in biblical days and not today. Our good deeds could be likened to the good works done by a petty thief sentenced to community service to pay for his crimes, but they could not be likened to a life sentence incurred by a violent, repeat rapist to pay for his crimes. In other words, in no way do love and good deeds satisfy all the claims of justice, be it human justice or divine justice. They do, however, help to clean up the mess that sin creates in our interpersonal relationships. This is what Proverbs is teaching here.219
208 For Talmudic use of Proverbs 16:6 in the context of receiving forgiveness of sins through charity and good deeds, see b. Berakhot 5b.
209 See b. Yoma 85b–86a; t. Yom HaKippurim 5(4):6–9; m. Yoma 8:8; Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 1:4; cf. also below, 3.15.
210 In the new translation of Rabbi E. Touger, Maimonides, Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Teshuvah, Laws of Repentance (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Maznaim, 1987), 16 (with brief commentary), the Hebrew phrase teshuvah tolah is rendered, “Teshuvah has a tentative effect.” Cf. also 18.
211 For recent discussion, see B. A. Levine, Leviticus, JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), Excursus 1, “That Person Shall be Cut Off,” 241–42; J. Milgrom, Numbers, JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1990), Excursus 36, “The Penalty of ‘Karet’,” 405–8, with reference to D.J. Wold, The Biblical Penalty of Karet (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Univ. Microfilms, 1978).
212 For a discussion of Isaiah 22:14, cited as a proof text for the concept that one’s own death makes final atonement, see above, n. 206. For further treatment of the Rabbinic background, see R. Avraham di Boton, Lehem Mishneh to Hilkhot Teshuvah 1:4, and see concisely in English, Touger, Laws of Repentance, 14–19.
213 According to Levine, “The primary sense of the verb kipper is ‘to wipe off, cleanse,’ essentially a physical process” (Leviticus, 110). Milgrom goes as far as saying, ‘ “Atone’ or ‘expiate’ is the customary translation for kipper, but in most cases this is incorrect” (Leviticus 1–16, 1079).
214 Note also Rashi’s comments to Ezekiel 43:20, cited above, n. 164.
215 Hartley, Leviticus, renders kpr here with “undone” (thus, by loyal love and truth, iniquity is undone).
216 Fritz Maass, “kpr pi. to atone,” in Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, ed. Claus Westermann and Ernst Jenni, trans. Mark E. Biddle (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1997), 2:632 (the article runs from 624–35).
217 For a discussion of Genesis 32:21, see Brown, “Kipper and Atonement,” 193–94.
218 As I have noted, it is extremely important to remember that the sanctuary itself could only be cleansed from the pollution of Israel’s sins by blood.
219 For those looking for a technical theological exegesis of Proverbs 16:6, see Delitzsch, in Keil and Deliztsch, Proverbs, 338–39.